Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Jan 30th 2012
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Limited Edition Blu-ray Volume 1
Madoka Kaname's life as an 8th grader couldn't be better – she has a loving family and great friends, and thanks to a little magical cat-creature thing named Kyubey, she's got the chance to throw it all away in favor of having magical girl powers. Along with her buddy Sayaka, Madoka weighs the intense pros and cons of signing a contract with Kyubey, making a wish and becoming a magical girl, whose duty it is to fight back the evil and mysterious “witches” who drive people to suicide. Before she makes her decision, however, the grim reality of service to Kyubey is put on full display.
The magical girl genre is one of the most well-worn and familiar assemblage of tropes anime has to offer – over the last 40 years or so it's been done, done again, done a hundred times more, beaten into the ground, resurrected, buried again and then exhumed. It's been satirized, parodied and paid loving tribute countless times, to the point where at times the genre parodies seemed to outnumber the sincere productions. They all follow the same basic set of rules – falsely “unremarkable” girl with a whole lot of moxie winds up with magical powers, a frilly dress, some sort of powerful totem (usually one that can be easily translated into bedazzled plastic merchandise) and, of course, an adorable and highly marketable fuzzy little sidekick. It's all ultra-familiar territory to anime fans, who at this point have likely seen so many parodies and deconstructions of the genre that any attempt to twist the material might feel stale.
It stands to reason, then, that when a real honest-to-goodness subversion comes along, it becomes a sensation. Puella Magi Madoka Magica avoids what nearly every other “magical girl deconstruction” does: instead of pretending to mock the genre while wallowing in its easiest clichés, Madoka Magica is truly attempting to do something different, introducing a host of wildly creative and deeply sinister elements, reaching inside the very heart of the genre itself and pulling it inside out.
At least, that's what the show seems like it's doing in these first 4 episodes, which is all you get in this installment of Aniplex's limited release.
It's a testament to the show's all-around superior craftsmanship, though, that these four episodes are so satisfying. We're introduced to the show's central conceit right up front: it opens inside plucky young Madoka's head, where she's having an apocalyptic vision of the future featuring a brave magical girl on the losing side of a desperate battle, hosted by a weird fuzzy little cat-eared mascot character named Kyubey. Kyubey promises Madoka that she can change this grim future by signing a contract to become a magical girl herself shortly before she wakes up. It's here we're given just a few moments of the familiar – she runs to her idyllic school with toast in her mouth, meets up with her best friends, all the things you can expect from the first episode of a magical girl series. The series starts showing its hand as quickly as it can, however, almost as if it's so excited to show you what you're in for that it simply can't wait.
Things start getting dark almost immediately: the girl from Madoka's dream, Homura, shows up as a transfer student and issues Madoka with a dire warning: “don't change who you are, and don't get involved with this nonsense”. Naturally, that doesn't stick; Madoka and her blue-haired friend Sayaka thwart Homura's attempt at taking Kyubey out, just in time for a “witch” attack, a powerful force invisible to most that drives people to suicide and murder. They're saved by Mami, a blonde magical girl who has fully bought in to her duty as a witch-slayer, one who clashes with the icy cold Homura and starts teaching Madoka and Sayaka all about the risks and rewards of a contract with Kyubey, whose formerly cute perma-smile and beady little pink eyes slowly become more and more sinister each time he's framed on screen. Even in the first episode, the show is extremely effective at laying a foundation that there's something deeply wrong with all of this and it isn't going to end well. By the end of the fourth episode, after some really disturbing events and revelations have occurred, you're cringing, wondering just how deep this rabbit hole goes and how bad things are going to get.
And that's really where the subversion comes in – the tone is executed with the sort of balance you rarely see. There's a palpable sense of dread hanging over everything that happens past the halfway mark in the first episode, one that drives you to continue watching rather than succumbing to pure angst. There's an expertise in the way the plot unfolds, sparing the clumsy exposition and only sharing what it needs to at the right moments, explaining as it goes along, making sure the audience knows the consequences of what's happening without drowning in lore. Central to all of this is the Kyubey character, who serves as sort of a symbol for what the creative team seems to be trying to do with this show – cute (and marketable!) on the outside, but it isn't remotely what it appears to be, instead hiding a litany of deep dark secrets that are better left buried. The world Madoka has found herself embroiled in isn't a magical fantasy world where she's moonlighting as a heroine saving pure hearts from incompetent villains and eating cake with her friends, it's a surrealist nightmare that she's been told will likely end in her death, to be forgotten by everyone who loves her. That the show posits this while pulling no punches makes it something special. At least, you know, in these first four episodes.
That quality doesn't stop at the storytelling – the artistry on display here is pretty fantastic and, best of all, risk-taking. Sure, the character designs are generally rote cutsey-poo magical girls with simplistic features and petticoats and jeweled sticks and whatnot, but once the “witches” start showing up, the show descends into almost psychedelic madness, a pastiche of cutout monarch butterflies and mustachioed dustballs filling the screen. It's unlike anything else out there, visually, and it evolves from episode to episode – each witch encounter is different from the last, following a different set of design rules, with grotesquely beautiful results. It's nigh-on experimental, and the juxtaposition of the twisted witch environments next to the cast's clean, stereotypical anime look provides a nice little summary of what makes this show so aesthetically different and daring. The animation itself isn't particularly spectacular – this was animated on a television budget, after all – but the art is so captivating that it's hard to notice the somewhat limited movement. It all looks incredibly sharp and handsome on bluray, too.
There's one massive downside to this release, and that is, of course, the episode count. Aniplex is doing what Aniplex does, which an approximation (or in many cases simply a re-labeled import) of the Japanese release, which means we only get 4 episodes in an impossibly handsome package designed to part superfans with their money for a limited amount of content. This first volume comes with the first 4 episodes on bluray and DVD in a clear case with a reversible cover, a stack of limited postcards, two unsettling Kyubey stickers, a folded mini-poster and a soundtrack CD in its own DVD case, all bundled up in a sturdy, sueded box with gold embossed lettering. They want $95 for this beast, and there's no doubt the fans will pay for it, but if you're new to the series – especially given the way the show is written and the cliffhanger at the end of episode 4 – it's going to be a long, frustrating wait to see if the series lives up to the promise on this disc. It'd have been nice if they'd charged $100 for the complete series in one box with no frills, but that isn't how their particular business model operates, so we all get to wait.
Also included in the box is an English dub, which is a nice change of pace for the normally dub-adverse Aniplex. It's a competent and serviceable dub, with a team of talented actresses doing their best to bring these characters to life in English. They manage to mostly avoid “generic anime girl dub voice”, matching the pathos on screen without resorting to overacting, which would've easily killed any gravitas the show has to offer. Even Kyubey's voice is a pretty solid match – they didn't stray very far from the tone of the original Japanese, inflection and performance-wise. There are a few unnecessary embellishments in the dub script – “I'll have to take her out of commission” gets changed to “I'll just have to take her rookie ass out of commission” and the like, the kind of “let's make it edgier!” antics that just don't feel like they needed to be in there. Thankfully, those moments are limited, and people who prefer dubs won't be missing anything by switching over to the English track.
Even with only 100 minutes to go on, it's pretty clear why this show was and continues to be such a hit with fans. It's genuinely trying to do something different, and the enthusiasm the creative team clearly has for this project is bursting from every frame. There's no telling if the show actually lives up to its promise or not – we'll have to wait it out like we did in the bad old days, twiddling our thumbs until volume 3 comes out in 4 or 5 months, but if the first third of the show is any indication, it'll be well worth the wait (and the fairly ridiculous expense). More, please.
Overall : A
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A
+ Truly subversive, dark, and unique take on the magical girl genre. Wildly creative art direction. Dub's pretty good too.
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